Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad Props! Hello, Old Friend

Behind Rajon Rondo’s ninth career postseason triple double (which, for those scoring at home, is the fourth most all time) and another solid (though lackluster by recent standards) 18-point (7-of-17 FG), 13-rebound showing from Kevin Garnett, on Saturday night the Boston Celtics finalized the NBA’s final four.

The Celtics started their third Eastern Conference Finals in five years staring down some familiar foes in South Florida. For the third straight season and the fourth time in five years their path crosses with that of now three-time MVP LeBron James. By his side is an incredibly in-form Dwyane Wade, who is also facing the Celtics for the third straight postseason. Many will point to league-best defensive prowess (just 98.2 points allowed/100 possessions) and regular season success against the Heat (won three of four) as evidence of the Celtics’ ability push Miami to the brink and perhaps pen yet another disappointing chapter in the story of LeBron James.

Don’t bet on it. Yes, Kevin Garnett is balling at a level approaching that of his 2004 MVP season. Yes, the timetable for Chris Bosh’s return remains uncertain. And yes, equally uncertain is Bosh’s condition upon return. However, if the Celtics are unable to score consistently (using the league’s 27th ranked offense) against the league’s fourth stingiest defense – with the most devastating perimeter defender on Earth checking Paul Pierce – any success they have in slowing Miami’s offense will be rendered moot. The new adventures of old KG may push this matchup to six games, but the storyline in unlikely to vary greatly from last year.

On the prop front, the Western Conference Finals (some thoughts to come here) is effectively a three-on-three battle between the Spurs’ bejeweled trio and the NBA’s best 1-2-3 perimeter combo. Back East, meanwhile, the menu boasts five familiar faces, with cameos from a variety of supporting characters:

Brandon Bass Over 18½ Points + Rebounds – Speak of the devil! Bass has been solid for the C’s all season, scoring 15+ in a game 20 times and grabbing at least seven rebounds on 25 occasions, but make no mistake, his appearance on the prop radar is owed almost entirely (if not entirely entirely) to his 27-point outburst in Boston’s Game 5 win over Philly.

Interestingly the added attention may be somewhat justified. Bass has combined for 20+ points + rebounds in three of his last four, posted P+R totals of 18+ three times against the Heat in regular season and fared no worse than 16 – 8 & 8 on April 24’s no stars affair. I didn’t think I was ready to trust Bass to turn in a big performance in a road series opener, but discovered that doing so at a plus price does not feel entirely nuts.

Dwyane Wade Under 26½ Points – What a difference a week makes, huh?

Eight days ago, Wade, fresh off as bad a playoff performance as any bona fide superstar in recent memory has had, facing questions about his health… and ~23.5 scoring lines. Three games, 99 points and 40-for-65 (61.5%) later, we’ve seen a three-point spike.

Under my “don’t bet against greatness” rule of thumb, fading Wade is not really a viable option, but, given recent line inflation and a failure to reach 25 in any 2011-12 game against Boston and the premium price tag, decided that there are occasions to break certain rules.

LeBron James Over/Under 30 points – Forget the numbers. There was a decided “fuck you” element to LeBron’s disposal of the Celtics last spring.

This year, Bosh is out, adding to LeBron offensive workload, and Avery Bradley’s absence does nothing to help the C’s on the perimeter. Try as I have, I am totally unable to concoct a scenario in which this year’s evisceration is any less brutal.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mad Props! Spicing Up Game 7

In roughly half an hour, at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden (Did I get that right? Didn’t look it up) the Celtics and the Sixers will take part in an oddly compelling one-and-done affair. ESPN will cue up the archival footage and this clash as another in the Boston-Philly pantheon. They will (I hope) fail.

In the absence of single elimination or sudden death, any Game 7 in the NBA, by its very nature, is intriguing. It ain’t Russell and Wilt, or Bird-McHale-Parish v. Doc-Moses-Toney, but Saturday night will feature two squads on the verge of rising to heights unforeseen for either when the season tipped off on Christmas Day.

On the one hand, we’ve got the Celtics, a once-fading, star-laden empire resuscitated by the return of a veteran stalwart to his Hall of Fame best and the postseason’s best remaining pure playmaker. Should the Celtics emerge triumphant, they will move on to author yet another (perhaps the final) chapter in their saga with LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, in their respective twilights but hardly over the hill, will be fighting further cement their legacies among the game’s greats, while Rajon Rondo… yeah, I have no idea what goes through his head. But dude can ball, and he’s got an incredible knack for doing so on the big stage.

Philly, meanwhile was this season’s whole > sum-of-the-parts story. That is, until a second half swoon saw them forced to fight tooth and nail to simply gain entry into the playoffs. Their first round matchup dealt them a fortuitous hand, as Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were nipped by the injury bug – and Carlos Boozer remained. Led not by one man, but by an eclectic collection of talents, the Sixers are single victory away from becoming just the third #8 seed in NBA history to reach the conference finals.

Given the defensive focus – and offensive limitations – personified by these teams – along with Boston’s edge in high end talent and postseason experience – the buildup to Game 7 has a decent shot at outstripping the excitement of the game itself. That is of course, unless you’ve got your action elsewhere…

Andre Iguodala –Under 13 Points

On the surface it would appear that Game 7’s great value play is in Iggy scoring 14+. In the series’ first six games Iguodala has averaged 15.6 points per game and scored 13+ three times – all in Boston. He’s shown an ability to avoid foul trouble while guarding Paul Pierce (no more than 4 fouls in a game this series and 4+ just three times in his last 17 v. Boston) and is certain to see the floor, having logged 35+ minutes in five of six in the series, and in 10 of 12 playoff games. Iggy will be live on Saturday.

However, I’d strongly suggest a glimpse behind the numbers before getting’ down on Iggy. Yes, he’s averaged 16 per in three trips to Boston this series, but he’s made just 43.6% of his shots en route (sadly an upgrade over his 40.9% mark for the series), relying on an unsustainable run from beyond the arc for his points. In the three games, Iguodala has made 7-of-12 (58.3%) 3-point attempts, including an unreal 6-of-8 in Games 1 and 5, the only times he’d have actually won on the over. 

Kevin Garnett – Over 27/27½ Points + Rebounds

So you remember how Vintage KG crashed 2012’s playoff party in Boston’s opening round defeat of the Hawks? Well, he got comfy and is still passed out on your parents’ couch.

His worst game (by some margin) of this series still saw him combine for 20 points + rebounds. He’s managed 26+ in each of the other five, eclipsing 40 three times. It’s worth noting that two of these five (15 and 12 in Game 2, and 20 and 6 in Game 5) would fall painfully short of victory tonight, but when one of the greatest ever to play his position is playing like one of the greatest ever to play his position, it pays to take notice. This is not quite a slam dunk win, but it’s tough to imagine this iteration of KG not making a run at 20-10 with the season on the line.

Rajon Rondo Over 27 Points + Assists

Statistically, this looks like full retail.

In 11 postseason games, Rondo’s handed out 10+ assists in nine times, with 13+ six times, including five in this series. In those same 11 playoff games Rondo has failed to score at least 13 points just twice, and has topped 15 five times. He’s combined for at least 27 P+A six times, four of them in the last six games.

In three regular season meetings with the Sixers, Rondo (who’s attempted 10+ shots in every playoff game thus far) attempted just 16 shots en route 18 points (seriously, that is excellent) and posted 15+ assists twice. The Sixers have done precious little to stop Rondo in this series, and given the things we’ve seen him do with the eyes of the nation on the Celtics, (gut feel alert!) look for monster outing.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hero Ball Redefined

Russell deployed it without the ball. Time and again, Jerry West rode it to the very cusp. It made Larry a Legend. It’s what Magic means by “winnin’ time.” Isiah oozed it. And Michael? Well…

These days, the San Antonio Spurs appear to heroically disavow it. It courses through Carmelo Anthony’s veins, though it’s apparent that at least partial transfusion may be in order. As with everything, Chris Paul has achieved an awe-inspiring mastery. It will, as it has before, for better or for worse, determine the Lakers’ fate. Six years ago it permanently coated Dwyane Wade in Teflon, and LeBron James’ willingness – or lack thereof – to deploy it en route to the ultimate triumph will draw more scrutiny than any decision he’s ever made.

Hero ball.

Already a hot button, as the playoff field is whittled down and a new champion crowned, the idea will take up residence under our collective microscope. Vilified by the evolved, new school observer, hero ball has come to represent an antiquated, selfish and inefficient path in the pursuit of victory. An analog flip-phone in a 4G world.

Make no mistake, one player has not, will not, cannot singlehandedly win a game, a playoff series or a championship. However, in this, a team sport in which the individual performance has the greatest impact on final outcome, it is the foundation upon which virtually all greatness has been built.